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In race for AG, a focus on experience, retail politicking

Maura Healey greeted residents at the Bunker Hill Day parade (left) and Warren Tolman admired a plate of food at Franklin Park.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff and Zack Wittman for the Boston Globe (right)

Maura Healey greeted residents at the Bunker Hill Day parade (left) and Warren Tolman admired a plate of food at Franklin Park.

It’s almost noon and Maura Healey is behind schedule.

Gridlock approaching Storrow Drive has the candidate and her staff debating a switch to nearby streets, but they soldier on, her campaign manager negotiating deals by phone as he drives, Healey’s eyes darting between the grinding traffic and a briefing book on her lap.

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“I don’t like to keep them waiting. I don’t like being late,” Healey, 43, says as the Saturn SUV finally turns onto an agreeably uncrowded Beacon Street, heading to a brownbag lunch in Allston.

Public appearances, meet-and-greets, and calls to voters fill each day for Healey and Warren Tolman, opponents seeking the Democratic nomination to replace Martha Coakley as Massachusetts attorney general.

With polls showing them nearly tied and most voters undecided, each hopes to boost momentum built in mid-June at the party convention, where Tolman won the endorsement but Healey made a strong showing as a first-time candidate, falling just 4 percentage points behind the party heavyweight.

Healey has a taste for competition. She jokes that at 5-foot-4 — a foot shorter than Tolman — she doesn’t look like the former professional basketball player in the race, but for two years she played starting point guard for a women’s team in Austria.

Height may not matter, but talking basketball could score her a few points. Healey often begins conversations with sports chat, but if that’s not your thing, she quickly pivots — what are your interests?

On many issues — gun violence, substance abuse, campus sexual assaults — the candidates differ not in philosophy but in strategy or priority.

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An engineers’ group appears to be won over by her support for infrastructure funding and opposition to repealing a measure that ties the state gas tax to the rate of inflation.

Marvin W. Miller, 80, likes her agenda but questions whether the state can fund it. He says he is meeting Healey for the first time but knows Tolman and Republican candidate John Miller.

“The one I’m not supporting I know better than the other one,” Miller says coyly, “and that’s why I’m not supporting him.”

On many issues — gun violence, substance abuse, campus sexual assaults — the Democratic candidates differ not in philosophy but in strategy or priority, leaving a great deal riding on their experience, charisma, and appetite for retail politics.

On Saturday, Tolman, 54, is really running for office — jogging through Salem’s gay pride parade to shake every hand he can without losing his spot behind the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” characters.

His tone is self-deprecating: “Some of that’s actually true,” he says, handing out campaign fliers.

When a supporter says he sees Tolman everywhere, the candidate responds, “If I can’t win them over, I’ll wear them out.”

At the post-parade festival, Tolman meets Kate Haffner, annual fund officer for Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders and a supporter of Healey, with whom she went to law school.

“You’re running against Maura Healey, huh?” asks Haffner, 47. “She’s tough. She’s tough, but I think you are, too.”

A state legislator from 1991 to 1999 and unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in 1998 and governor in 2002, Tolman is better known than Healey — at least to those with long memories.

As a top Coakley aide from 2007 until last fall, Healey spearheaded a successful challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act and worked on other important cases, garnering headlines for the cause but not necessarily name recognition.

“Eight months ago, I’d never run for office, never asked for a vote, never raised a dollar” for a campaign, she says. “I’m a trial lawyer; I’m used to making my case. I just happen to be before the biggest jury of my life right now — the voters of Massachusetts.”

Healey is quick to point out that neither Tolman nor Miller has her experience trying cases and managing staff in the attorney general’s office, where she oversaw half its 500 employees.

Tolman is equally eager to tell voters that four former attorneys general — Frank Bellotti, Scott Harshbarger, Tom Reilly, and Jim Shannon — have endorsed him.

In the car leaving Salem, Tolman says he was inspired to return to public service after the alleged Boston Marathon bombers fled into his Watertown neighborhood and he watched with admiration as police searched for an alleged killer.

“Literally, they’re in your garage, they’re in your backyard,” he says. “They’re willing to put their life on the line for me.”

Tolman saw his opportunity last fall, he says, when Coakley announced plans to seek the governor’s office rather than reelection.

From Salem, he zips to a Juneteenth festival in Boston where he crosses paths with Healey, who also attends an NAACP meeting in Medford, a Somerville barbecue, and a Puerto Rican event in Dedham that day.

After a short conversation with Tolman, festival-goer Tanisha Isaac-Johnson, 37, says she finds him personable and will consider voting for him but, “I have to look at the other candidates as well.”

“Honestly, I haven’t been giving much thought to it,” the Dorchester homeowner says of the race, “but I’m glad he came out to introduce himself.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.
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